Interview with vocalist Jay Forrest and guitarist Dustin Nadler | By Nicholas Senior | Photo by Natalie Bisignano
Arbiters get a bad rap, due in large part to how awful arbitration can be. However, their ability to allow two sides to work out their issues without the baggage that comes with courtroom proceedings shouldn’t be forgotten. Sometimes, you just need to talk, have someone else listen, and come to a mutual understanding.
Such is very much the case for the soaring, emphatic comeback album from Charlotte, North Carolina’s Hopesfall. Arbiter—out July 13 via Equal Vision Records and Graphic Nature Records—is the sonic equivalent of the band’s last three records dueling it out in a binding arbitration.
Except, that’s not entirely true. Arbiter certainly takes the best aspects of Hopesfall’s past—stunning soundscapes, visceral and ethereal riffs, and Jay Forrest’s emotionally resonate vocals—and amplifies them, laughing at the idea that a band with 11 years of silence may have musical cobwebs to dust off. Regardless, the band members still needed to resolve their fear and anxiety about reviving their innate desire to create.
“After the split, we decided to give it a good break,” guitarist Dustin Nadler explains. “A handful of years go by, and—it’s weird, I was kind of content on the idea that I’ll never play again. The passion is always burning, especially listening to new releases from other bands when they come out. We decided to get up and start jamming around 2010. We just started playing together and writing some riffs and having fun, like we used to do. It was all about doing it for the sake of trying to get together and drink a few beers and write music.”
“There was no intention of writing a Hopesfall record, initially,” he continues. “We got these four songs together and decided to show them to a few people, including Mike Watts at VuDu Studios. Once the guys at Equal Vision and Graphic Nature heard it, it took off from there. A big part of their interest in having us do this was the realization that it sounded like Hopesfall—which made sense, because it came from the guys in Hopesfall. We just hadn’t wanted to call it that, so it caught us off guard.”
“In fact,” Forrest chimes in, “we were thinking about calling it a different project. One of the key names we had tossed around was Arbiter, so that ended up becoming the name of the album.”
Those initial jams brought everything back to the beginning of the band, Nadler acknowledges with a laugh. “When we wrote those four songs, that was kind of a milestone for us,” he says. “Until the prospect of Equal Vision Records came about—it’s so funny how after everything that’s gone on, it’s all come around full circle. We wrote records and toured, and after all that, it was three of us in a practice space saying, ‘If we can write three or four songs and catch the ear of a label, we can maybe even record an EP.’”
Part of the hesitation around using the band’s original name was that Hopesfall, the brand, had too much baggage—positive and negative—attached to it that may weigh down the sound of a few friends banging out some jams. “I was very reluctant to call it Hopesfall,” Nadler notes, “only because I was concerned that putting the name [on it] would immediately and rightfully create a certain expectation or put a certain stamp on what we were doing. I was really nervous [about whether] it was going to be good. When we put the single out, getting the positive response was huge. It was like a chef who hadn’t cooked a meal in 10 years [deciding to] cook one. It was like, ‘Please don’t suck! Please be good!’”
It was also akin to being a chef before the advent of Yelp, when one would perhaps see a delayed review of their food in the newspaper. Now, they often face a barrage of opinions before a patron has finished digesting their meal.
Forrest concurs, noting that not using the Hopesfall name allowed the band to avoid missing the forest for the trees. “I think it’s good that, in the beginning, everyone was writing without that name in mind, because then, you start thinking about the business of Hopesfall and the frustrations and all that stuff,” he says. “It becomes a lot of busywork and baggage that comes along, and I don’t think we wanted to lose that initial feeling of friends bonding and playing together. It was important to focus on the bond and love of music.”
Nadler chuckles, stating that the labels flat-out told the band that Arbiter should be a Hopesfall record—and wisely so! “Maybe I was unbelievably naïve,” he says, “but now that I look at it, [it’s] all of the members of Hopesfall playing songs that sounded a lot like Hopesfall. The common denominator for each of us was how we poured our blood, sweat, and tears into the band and the way it shaped us with the way that it just fizzled after [2007’s] Magnetic North. Now, we actually have that name and all that we accomplished opening an opportunity for us. We realized that we can’t not embrace the name. It is what it is, and Hopesfall has opened up this opportunity.”
Part of what helped Arbiter come together so easily was the band’s back-to-basics approach, relying on what got them this far. On their songwriting philosophy this time around, Nadler elaborates, “Jay’s vocals are so iconic to what we do, and we’ve never really written anything together—it’s always music first. I will speak for myself here, but I do feel like, over the course of [2004’s] A Types, Magnetic North, and now, Arbiter, we really were just writing what, at the time, we were into. We would take the riffs we thought sounded good and made sense to put song structures together, and Arbiter was really no different. We’re really a guitar-forward band, and as the riffs come forward, we start to put things together. It was the same as the old records, to sum it up. There was no timeframe or agenda on this.”
“We like to find a riff that everybody likes to jam on,” Forrest adds, “find a second riff that everyone likes, and then, try to be very thoughtful about the transition of how to get from point A to point B. Sometimes, that takes weeks,” he laughs.
Unlike the band’s famed early EP, 2001’s No Wings To Speak Of, Hopesfall have many wings to speak of. Notably, Forrest’s varied vocal flights over the years—which have evolved to include more clean singing—have added impact and power to the band’s sonic might. “The number one thing is to do what’s right for the song,” he says of choosing a vocal approach. “When we made the right turn to do A Types, I think that opened up a little more of the vocal singing. Actually, I think [drummer] Adam Morgan mentioned that started when we wrote ‘Decoys Like Curves’ [from 2002’s The Satellite Years], which opened up a different mind frame in how to approach songs and use my vocals. A common misconception is that I want to sing on the record a lot, but I want to do what’s best for the song. There’s actually a part of the hardcore kid in me that still wants to scream a lot,” he laughs.
That everlasting, youthful drive to create heavy, meaningful music coupled with the courage to overcome the demons they’ve fermented for over a decade has resulted in Hopesfall’s best record to date. No matter how poorly received arbitration can typically be, this meeting of the minds has created a lasting and powerful comeback in Arbiter.